What we can learn from Nepali orphans

IMG_1171.JPG In January, I spent two weeks with the kids at Ama Ghar, a home for underprivileged children* in Kathmandu Valley. It's a narrow four-story red brick building off of a busy two-lane road, and it houses 38 children whose parents are dead or debilitated from physical and mental illness. Many of them come from remote villages that are a full day's walk from the nearest road; communities without electricity that have high illiteracy rates.

Materially, the kids at Ama Ghar have little beyond bare necessities. Their toys are soccer balls made of rubber bands and old car tires. In the mornings they wash their hair and brush their teeth at a cold water tap outdoors, and after school they play with their half-exploded imitation Mizuno volleyball near the neighbor's pigsty until the sun goes down. Most nights, they do their homework under a single solar-powered backup lightbulb because of scheduled electrical outages, before going to sleep in tiny rooms crammed with second-hand bunk beds.

The most surprising thing about these kids, though, is not their living conditions. It's their attitude. These are really good kids. Generally speaking, they don't cheat, steal, complain, sneak off, or flake on their chores. During an eight-hour field trip to a Hindu temple on the other side of the Valley, the children kept tabs on each other without being told to do so, waiting patiently for the adults as they bargained for potatoes on the side of the street. Not one child complained about being hungry or needing to use the bathroom. Like a tight-knit family, they hugged each other often and shared everything without selfishness. The children all studied hard at school, like their lives depended on it — probably because their lives really do depend on it. As Bonnie Ellison, the resident manager, told me: "It's not easy out there." Hers is the epitome of tough love; an American who herself grew up in Kathmandu, she is arming them with the skills and attitude they need to survive and thrive in Nepali society. I left Ama Ghar with the strong conviction that these spirited, bilingual, ambitious kids could very well shape the future of this beautiful, struggling nation.

IMG_1512.JPG On my way home to San Francisco, I stopped through Tokyo to visit my parents. They were moving out of the property our family lived on for 22 years and had a lot of furniture they needed to get rid of. My mother was delighted when a nearby orphanage agreed to take the fridge and kitchen cabinet as donations. We made plans to visit the home and meet the director, who offered to give us a short tour.

We were immediately struck by how large the building was — by Tokyo standards, these 40 kids are living in a palace. The space, the meals, and the children's allowances ($30 a month for each junior high school kid and $55 once they reach high school) are all funded by the ward. These kids come here most often as a result of domestic violence, not poverty or the death of a parent. Currently, there are 30,000 children living in 550 homes like this one across the country, with 3,000 in Tokyo alone. It's a big, growing societal problem.

It was late in the afternoon when we visited the facilities, but none of the kids were around. School uniforms and manga were strewn across the floors of the oversized bedrooms shared by pairs of teenagers. The director, a gentle, large man with thick glasses, told us apologetically that the kids had dropped off their books and gone back out. I asked him if they got along with each other, and he sighed.

"All our children have severe social issues," he said. "They can't stay in the same room together for more than a few minutes before a fight erupts. I've been here for 25 years. Back in the day, it was indeed like a big family; the kids used to go on outings together and take care of each other. But these days, that's not the case at all."

I didn't meet many people at the Japanese children's home. I saw a couple of teenaged boys sitting around a table playing Nintendo DS, and introduced myself to one chubby 13-year old boy who wandered up to the director, imitated him for a few sentences, and then told us he couldn't wait until he was in high school so he could get a bigger monthly allowance.

One might expect the children in the Tokyo orphanage to be happier than the children in Nepal. After all, they have cash, video games, washing machines for laundry, and a huge urban playground to goof around in (the Nepali kids carry no cash, can't afford electronics, and wash their own clothes by hand). But the kids in Tokyo aren't happier. They can't get along with each other, never mind anyone else. There is no semblance of family life at the Tokyo orphanage. It felt like a repository for unwanted children.

IMG_0167.JPG In many ways, Nepali culture of today closely resembles pre-tech revolution Japan. The way the aunties at Ama Ghar prepared food in the kitchen or washed clothes in buckets of cold water reminded me of the way my Japanese grandmother went about her daily chores — it's something about the pacing and the commitment to what may seem like the most menial tasks that made me nostalgic for my childhood. I see many similarities between Japanese and Nepali culture. They're both traditionally patriarchal societies, with heavy Buddhist influences; children are taught to respect and care for elders, and society as a whole values community over individualism. But an unfortunate side effect of economic growth was that some of these cultural values have been compromised — if not ignored outright, they have at the very least become marginalized.

At Ama Ghar, the aunties live and sleep in the same rooms as the children. This type of setup is common in Nepali homes today and was also common in Japanese homes not too many generations ago. At the orphanage in Tokyo, all staff members go home in the evening, except one night a week when they're required to supervise the children on rotation. I believe this makes a big difference in how home-like each of these two places feels to the kids who live there. (An expert in otaku culture once told me that the reason the imouto — little sister — fetish exists is because some men still crave the type of closeness that used to bond Japanese families together.) I believe the disintegration of these kinds of long-held values has something to do with the unhappiness the Tokyo orphanage was sheltering.**

I may never know what created the problematic conditions at the Japanese children's home, but the director's words about the orphanage being a much brighter place a quarter of a century ago made me sad. Maybe the Tokyo orphanage could use a values lesson from its own history or from its counterpart in the developing world.

You can make a donation to Ama Ghar, the children's home in Kathmandu, on the Ama Foundation web site.

*Structurally, it's a lot like an orphanage, but the Ama Foundation doesn't call it that because many of the children still had one or both living parents, and the kids here are not up for adoption.
**After our visit, my mother got a phone call from the director saying that he didn't want our used furniture after all; they were going to get a charity organization to buy them all-new appliances.

(Thanks, Lee Nima Mam Ajq'ij Dr. M.X. Quetzalkanbalam, for your insights!)



  1. This is a truly interesting observation, and counter-intuitive. I would wonder, though, about selection bias. No-one in the Tokyo case is putting their child in an orphanage because they can’t afford to feed them (probably). Drugs, disability, and mental illness may have played a much bigger part in the lives of the young Japanese children than those in Nepal who (it is implied) came from relatively okay people who just couldn’t afford to keep children.

    I’m drawing this, rather extended, assumption from your mention that the children at the Ama foundation often have one or both living children.

  2. Oy. I find this characterization of the Nepali orphans as “good” kids so distasteful since it obviously presumes that the Japanese orphans are “bad” kids. And you just gloss over the fact that the Japanese orphans were mostly there because of domestic violence. Doesn’t it seem like exposure to domestic violence might have more to do with their inclination to fight than a Nintendo DS?

    Oh, the more I go up and read this, the more just distasteful it becomes. Your attitude towards these Japanese orphans is just… creepy. I mean, you’ve got a 13 year old kid who’s been removed from his home presumably because either he was being beat up or his mother was being beat up or something and you call him “chubby” talk about how he “irritates” the director and then seem so disgusted that he wants bigger allowance.

  3. I’m feeling guilty that I described your attitude as “creepy.” That’s not cool. But my daughter came from an orphanage that’s a lot more like the Nepali one you described than the Japanese one. And the kids there were sweet and well-behaved. But no matter how sweet and well-behaved they were, I cannot bear to think of my daughter there. There’s nothing good about growing up in an orphanage.

  4. Ok, erased my first long narrative, and boiled down into the stock, Nature V Nurture.

    The two groups are of course very different as they are raised very different. One group is raised as a family and a poor one at that, the other group is being raised as individuals of the bourgeoisie. Each has their own problems and outlooks and each is dealing with said problems in a different manner. While we might look at the group in Nepal as superior to the group in Tokyo, they might see it otherwise.

    There is a whole lot of Nature AND Nurture out there and a very small amount of absolutes.

    1. Demidan, when raising children, you must use your adult judgment and experience to shape their education in response to their abilities and personality. Your nurture should complement their nature, if those terms must be used, so that you as a parent optimize each child’s chance of living a fulfilled, happy, useful life. In specific cases this might indeed be nurture versus nature, because some kids may be genetically predisposed to be greedy, self-hating, or otherwise imperfectly fitted to living in a healthy human environment. But in many cases nurture fosters and enhances natural inclinations; although one of my children is extremely lazy (as am I, by nature) and has to be taught industry, another is extremely active, and has to be taught to channel excess creative energy in beneficial ways.

      The psychologist Donald Hebb observed that nature and nurture contribute to personality like length and width contribute to the area of a rectangle; knowing only the result, you cannot say which of the factors dominates any particular human response to a situation, it’s all highly individual. Some people are naturally friendly and co-operate, others had to be taught to be that way.

      The mechanisms of mammalian reproduction ensure that nearly all children are different. This is why there is no foolproof recipe for raising children and never will be. The best thing for them is love, obviously; you can see this demonstrated in studies over and over again (and I personally suspect that’s where the Nepali orphanage has an edge over the Japanese one) and it’s simply because you will try harder to do your best for those you love. You only say “that kid is no good, to hell with that kid, that kid can’t be taught” when you don’t love ’em.

      I guess the odds that I would comment here approach unity. Unfortunately my work will probably not allow a real conversation; as usual I am snatching a few minutes of BB here and there with the excuse of routine checking of various internet links. Sorry about the length!

  5. All I can say is that the children’s home in Osaka, Japan where our daughter once lived was nothing like what you describe in Tokyo. The adults were extremely dedicated and the school was orderly. The children got along with each other well, picked up after themselves, and looked after each other.

  6. This is an excellent and touching anecdote; so long as you remember that it’s an anecdote — and that the plural of anecdote is not data.

  7. I don’t see this as a attack on the Japanese kids as much as a plea for seeing what’s really important in life. When I clicked on the donation link the first thing I saw was “A day’s outing for everyone: $50″ and I almost started crying. That’s about what I spend to take my girlfriend to lunch. Which is more important, a day trip for an orphanage or a fancy lunch?

    1. When I clicked on the donation link the first thing I saw was “A day’s outing for everyone: $50″ and I almost started crying. That’s about what I spend to take my girlfriend to lunch. Which is more important, a day trip for an orphanage or a fancy lunch?

      Wait, I thought the point was NOT to give them free handouts, or else they’ll turn into those terrible, spoiled Japanese orphans.

      I would like to suggest that the Nepali kids may be poorly prepared for a life in modern Tokyo, and the Tokyo kids may be poorly prepared for a life in rural Nepal, but they may all be preparing themselves for the lives their societies have in store for them.

  8. It would seem to me that the more “family-like” the environment, the more positive effect it would have. The kids need more than a place to stay and stuff to play with, they need role models, guides, teachers, friends — a social network that the family would normally help provide, that has been removed for these kids.

    It’s hard to think of your place as a home when everyone wants to go home at the end of the day. It’s more like a hospital or a prison, and we all know how much people LOVE to be in those…

  9. I recently visited a school in the ancient city of Varanasi, India. Called Buddha’s Smile School, this school was created to teach children of the Dalits. The Untouchables. These children are only now being given the opportunity of an education. They come from a culture of poverty. Certainly they are poor, but deeper than that they have no aspirations. They have no dreams. As much as the Buddha’s Smile School is about teaching kids to read and write, it is also about teaching kids to dream, to aspire for a life greater than they know. It was a beautiful place, doing so much with so little. And happy. Glad to be at school.

  10. caste aware? http://www.tras.ca/
    TRAS, having recently received some new proposals, is once again looking into helping some of the remotest and poorest villages in the region.
    In India, in Phathura and Khalar villages in the Almora/ Nainital Districts of Uttarakhand State, children walk up to 10 km each way to school, and health services are nonexistent.
    Some of the Tibetans living in Indian villages in the Tuting region in the far north-eastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh are a week’s walk away from the nearest bus, which is itself a three-day journey from the nearest Tibetan settlement. In Sikkim, a Buddhist lama who recognises the value of education has started small schools for village children, the first generation to receive an education. Villagers in Humla, the poorest of Nepalís 75 districts in the far western corner of the country, are fighting to overcome caste prejudice and illiteracy.
    While we look to supporting new partners, we do not forget, of course, our ongoing work to foster quality education and health care for Tibetan children at Lhasa Yuthok Kindergarten, Dekyiling CrËche in Dehra Dun and Little Flowers CrËche in Dharamsala, for In- dian children and youth at Munsel-Ling School in the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh, and for Nepali and
    Tibetan students at Buddha Academy Boarding School in Kathmandu.
    If you wish to make a donation this year, please consider supporting one of our current or new projects in the list inside this newsletter, or consider giving the
    oard of Directors the freedom to use the donation where it is most needed for the new pro- jects we will be undertaking in the near future.
    If you would like your donation to be made in the name of a family member or friend, we would be happy to send a Hi- malayan card to the recipient telling them you have made the donation in their name and thanking them for it. Please call Lise at the office by Wednesday, December 16, to
    allow time for her to process your dona- tion and send the card: 604-224-5133.
    Thank you so much!
    On behalf of the TRAS Board of Direc- tors, I wish you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season, and a happy, healthy 2010. ~Jennifer Hales
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    Trans Himalayan Aid Society
    While we look to supporting new partners, we do not forget, of course, our ongoing work to foster quality education and health care for Tibetan children at Lhasa Yuthok Kindergarten, Dekyiling CrËche in Dehra Dun and Little Flowers CrËche in Dharamsala, for In- dian children and youth at Munsel-Ling School in the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh, and for Nepali and
    Tibetan students at Buddha Academy Boarding School in Kathmandu.

    If you wish to make a donation this year, please consider supporting one of our current or new projects

  11. The entire issue is one of proper bonding and attachment. The Nepali children are getting their deepest emotional needs met by their caregivers and the Japanese children are not. In every interaction with a child, ask yourself, is what I am about to do or say going to strengthen and build connection or is it going to break it. Then act accordingly. I have seen these principles work with children around the globe without fail, and regardless of language, culture, continent, etc. Human need is human need. Children either get those needs met or they, and we all, pay the price.

  12. It’s interesting, after watching all of those child sponsorship commercials on T.V., the situation of the Nepal orphanage actually sounds really good. They don’t wander barefoot on endless streets made of broken glass (does that really exist?) and they have running water and often have light at night. They apparently have potatos and get to visit a temple. When I was a kid I’d often choose to play with old tires and big empty cardboard boxes instead of my electronic video games and modern sports equipment.

    Way to go kids in Nepal! You’re living the dream of kids in Timbuktu apparently.

  13. What Lisa is talking about is just another example of a suspicion I hold about human nature; that our closeness and our caring for each other is borne out of suffering, or the knowledge of potential suffering.

    Those kids in Nepal live under the kind of circumstances where they know that all they really have is each other and the aunties. It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to look around at your world and realize who your support network is. So, naturally, they come to appreciate what that network of people does to help them survive, and they in turn develop feelings of attachment, appreciation and eventually love for those people and try to return their help as much as possible. It’s a very basic social process for animals like us.

    The kids in Tokyo, meanwhile, are in a different boat entirely. Let’s set aside their familial circumstances and look at it from a more basic standpoint. On an instinctual level, those kids have never, ever seen the kind of life that a Nepali orphan would face on their own. Those kids have never had to worry about being totally stranded and having to fend for themselves. Every building has indoor plumbing, hot water, an HVAC system to keep it comfortable, plentiful food and high-priced trinkets to play with.

    But because that lifestyle is all they know, it’s easy to take it for granted; that is, to accept this as the baseline of life. Every primal need is fulfilled, and their social experiences with adults (and now each other) proves that their lives are essentially meaningless. No one loves them; they simply exist in a comfortable, faceless, bureaucratic welfare machine. So, after a time, the kids adapt most of their social needs into needs for the gadgetry and other such junk. It fills the void, so to speak, and what’s left behind is something typically called a sociopath. They are unable to connect to each other or anyone else, and love is completely out of the question.

    Love requires needing and wanting. It requires knowledge of certain death or extreme difficulty in the absence of the object of love. That is why the big-city kids love their Nintendo, internet and whatever other objects. They know that humans provide no such help. The Nepali kids, meanwhile, are just the opposite.

    Incidentally, this is why I also believe love does not really exist in most industrialized nations. It’s unnecessary in the face of the technological developments. We don’t feel like we need each other anymore. But I digress, and excuse the preachiness of this comment. It is, after all, just an opinion.

    1. I have come to suspect something similar. I hate to say it, because it sounds like an endorsement of some kind of trite Luddist back-to-the-land sentiment, but it makes sense to me.

  14. Hi Lisa,

    Great article. I’m curious about one thing. I tried to do a bit of research once relating to orphanages in Kanto and got a lot of resistance from the staff when I tried to schedule an interview-even though it was more about the history of the institution than the conditions there. Its reputation with other people doing social work in the community was fine. Do you have any advice on how to make friends with orphanages?

  15. My internet was down for two and a half hours yesterday and activities of my entire family ground to a halt. The only way my son could do his homework was to do all of his research via my iPhone. Then I figured out the router had become unplugged. Whew.

  16. Reminds me of Richard Mortenson’s 3 Cups of Tea Book. It is a must read about an American Hiker that took in a village in Pakistan as family. He promised to build that one village a school for the children and he’s built 50!

    He does it by personally herding the donated $$$ to Pakistan, and further herding it past the drug lords straight to the vendors supplying the projects.

    It is truly a great book, and cause. Buying a copy will donate towards the schools, and instill a feeling of wonder how this man can sacrifice so much for the children in the area.

  17. It sounds as though the Japanese orphans were more likely to have experienced physical, emotional, verbal abuse before coming to the orphanage.

    Literature by respected psychologists documents that growing up in a traumatic, unpredictable environment, with violence, possible neglect and/or fear of abandonment leads to children (and adults) who tend to see things as a threat, and who are less able to self-soothe.

    Seeing things as a threat and being less able to self-soothe is not conducive to getting on with others.

    (Especially to getting on with other traumatised orphans. I would argue that the hardest person for a traumatised person to get on with is another traumatised person.)

    It’s not as simple as poverty = getting on with others and affluence = selfish.

    The Romanian orphans (many of whom had living parents) were raised in an environment of extreme poverty, physical and emotional neglect, and were so badly traumatised by it that they had difficulty coping and adapting when adopted by loving families who wanted to meed their physical and emotional needs.

    1. The six-pointed star, like the swastika, is also a Hindu symbol. Pretty much any conceivable combination of lines is a Hindu symbol. They’ve been cooking them up for about 40,000 years.

  18. @Antinous: Yes, but there appears to be hebrew writing in the bottom right of the sign (but too small for me to read)

    1. I didn’t notice that. It could say yod-something-vav, or it might just be some small words in Devanagari with some really tiny words in Devanagari under them.

    2. It’s not Hebrew. It is the adress of the school (that’s a sign board of a school, the star is a faded school logo. Most government schools in Nepal has a similar logo). The text is in Devnagari(Nepali). I couldn’t make the first two words below the star, the last word is “Kathmandu” and the words below it is the established date.

      and, Thank you Lisa.

  19. It’s very hard to teach someone empathy after a certain point in time. A bad parent given control of a child in their formative years can do immense damage to the child’s personality formation. I imagine many of these kids in Tokyo have been emotionally and physically abused. I don’t know but from talks with adopted friends–assume that it’s much harder to know that your parents abandoned you than that they simply aren’t alive anymore. Being abandoned fuels huge resentment. There are a number of other factors that probably explain why the kids in the Japanese orphanage don’t seem happy. A lack of a sense of family is certainly huge. And Japan is a culture that teaches children and everyone–you are what you have. And if you have less, therefore, you feel like less of a person.
    Years ago, a study of the yakuza noted that many of them came from abused backgrounds. This is one of the appeals of the organization–they offer a family to people who have never really had one. (Of course, I’m getting off subject here.)
    However, you probably should spend more than a day at the Japanese orphanage to get a sense of how things are. But one thing I think is worth noting–electronic games and toys allow people to entertain themselves in isolation. Low tech play among children is probably the best way for them to learn to interact with each other and create real bonds. Maybe the orphanage should ban video games and put in a playground.

  20. Dear Lisa

    Thank you so much for your excellent article.

    Your account of the Nepalese children’s home reminds me a little bit of a rural school I visited in Natal, South Africa many years ago and the politness and genuine happiness of the children there. Your description of the Japanese orphanage, on the other hand, reminds me more of the technical school where I am retraining. Many of the kids there have the social disorders … the aspberger’s, ADHD the bravado and the posturing.

    I’m not too sure exactly where we lost the way or what the big picture answers are, other than to find time for family and community, but you certainly made me think about it.

  21. i m really glad that children of Ama ghar are preparing for their future in a responsible way. I want to wish them all the best of luck and also wish they keep their spirits up as this day.. they really resemble the fact how we have happy smiles though less money in our pockets.. this is nepal.. i also hope there would be no further politics to diminish the attempt to regain peace of our country … love xxx

    Nepalese gal
    Preeti Joshi

  22. It’s a nice workshop being carried out. Though being a nepali i must say it WONDERFUL . thanks sir who might have taken out this . if possible i’m ready to give my effort on your work. THANKS.

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